In my obsession with coffee and making the perfect cup, I pride myself on doing it in a neat and clean manner. I’ve seen plenty of messy counters covered with spilled coffee grounds, but me? No way. I don’t want to waste a single ground of my precious coffee so when I spoon it into my little espresso pot, I do it very carefully and never spill any.
Or so I thought.
One day I was at my parents’ house and as I made my coffee, I looked down and saw some grounds on the counter. That’s weird, I thought, must be a fluke – I don’t usually do that!
But when it happened the next day and the day after that and the day after that, I realized something: I spill coffee grounds every day. I may not notice these spills at home because my countertops are the same color as the grounds, but with that mint green background, my sin could not be camouflaged!
I like to think that I’m a fair and unbiased judge of people. I like to think that I would never categorize a person based on their outward appearance. I like to think that I see every person I encounter as the actual person they are, not who someone else might assume them to be.
But it turns out that I’m just a human. And it turns out that like every other human, I have a strong unconscious bias. No matter how righteous I think I am, my initial view of every person I come face to face with is influenced by my childhood environment, the area of the world in which I live, my media exposure, and my self-protective sinful nature.
It turns out there’s a whole mess of spilled coffee grounds on my counter.
One of the things I love the most about the Bible is the characters. I love that there are so many people who experienced what God was doing during those times and that someone thought to write down their stories so we would be able to relate and learn. Unfortunately, we’ve been trained by our instinctual self-righteousness to see ourselves in the “good guys” but not the “bad guys”. When we find out our heroes had flaws, we eagerly raise our hands to admit we struggle with the same things. Oh, I am such a Martha! Peter? Yeah, we could be friends.
But rarely do we read ourselves into the narratives of Cain, Pharoah, or Haman. We see ourselves in David, but never Goliath. Samson, but never Delilah. The bumbling, naive disciples, but never the harsh, judgmental Pharisees.*
The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, following in the traditions of the religious leaders of their past (**see all of the books of the prophets) were the people most highly criticized by Jesus in the gospels – not because of their sin, but because of their refusal to see their sin. Rather than asking God to reveal the truth about their own hearts, they successfully turned all the blame on others. They refused to see themselves as part of the problem.
It turns out I’m more of a Pharisee than I thought. My unconscious bias is just as much at play in my high view of my self as it is in my low view of others. If I look at myself and think for some reason I am above the entire rest of humanity, that I would never have an inaccurate assumption of another person based on their appearance, I am staring down a “whitewashed tomb” – “beautiful on the outside but on the inside… full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
There’s debate in the psychology world about whether or not unconscious bias can be overcome, but as followers of Jesus, we have a major advantage! We are indwelled by the very Spirit of the only unbiased Being in all of eternity. Not only does He see every single person with complete accuracy, He Himself knit their very being together. The colors of our skin and the variation of our cultures were His idea, and with His help, our unconscious bias can become conscious – our spills can be decamouflaged, leading to repentance and change.
When David penned Psalm 139, he had no way of knowing how much we would need it in 2020. When he spoke the truth that God knows our every thought, he knew nothing about our modern studies of psychology and the human brain.
But what David did know is that he wasn’t an expert on himself. He knew that he needed God to “search” him (v. 1). He needed the Spirit to “perceive” the thoughts he didn’t even know he was thinking (v. 2) and then reveal them to him.
As a follower of Jesus, this miraculous process is available to me as well. I may not understand my own brain, but I can put myself in a posture of daily dependence on the One who does:
“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
*“Disney Princess Theology & COVID19 Activism with Theon Hill,” The Holy Post Podcast, Episode 413, July 15, 2020